In just one weekend in December, a series of terrorist attacks killed nearly 200 people in five countries. All of them claimed the lives of civilians, and all were claimed by different terrorist groups.
In Yemen, a suicide bomber killed 48 government troops at a military base in the port city of Aden, also injuring 36 people; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State were variously cited as the likely culprits. In Turkey, two bombs killed at least 38 people and wounded well over a hundred outside a football stadium in Istanbul; TAK, a Kurdish militant group, claimed responsibility.
In Nigeria, two female suicide bombers died after detonating a bomb near a market in Maiduguri, a city in the northeast part of the country; an additional 17 people were injured and officials blamed the Islamist group Boko Haram. In Egypt, a bomb exploded inside a Coptic Christian cathedral complex in Cairo, killing at least 25 and injuring dozens more, with the perpetrator supposedly the Islamic State. Just one day earlier, six policemen were killed in a separate bombing attack on the road leading to Giza, allegedly by a newly formed militant group called Hasm. And in Somalia, 29 people were killed and another 48 were wounded in a suicide car bombing at the entrance of Mogadishu’s largest port near a police complex. The violent Islamist group al-Shabab was reportedly responsible.
This is a horrific spate of attacks, and it should disturb us all. As the scale of what had happened became clear, there was naturally some speculation that the attacks were somehow connected or coordinated. But although the headlines are certainly alarming, all the attacks occurred in countries facing very specific challenges. Rolling them into one “wave” of violence is misguided, and misunderstands the real nature of global terrorist threats.
Nigeria’s seven-year Boko Haram insurgency has claimed more than 20,000 lives and forced 2.6 million people from their homes. Somalia, a country whose collapsed government is propped up by the United Nations, has been fighting an insurgency against al-Shabab for more than a decade.
Turkey, meanwhile, has been involved in a three-decade-long insurgency against the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party in the southeast that has killed tens of thousands of people. Yemen is mired in a hugely complex conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people, while Egypt is still racked by violent unrest after a revolution and then a coup.
So it’s not altogether surprising that these countries should be facing attacks that claim significant casualties, nor is the use of terrorist tactics something particularly new.
The nature of war has changed; most victims of conflict are civilians, and more of the tactics used are unconventional. Terrorist attacks aren’t just used by terrorist groups — which hide clandestinely in cells but hold no territory and do not have a militia — but also by insurgents, who use them as a tactic in low-intensity conflicts. Terrorism is a cost-effective way to kill many innocent civilians — but more importantly, it’s as efficient a way as any to make headlines.
In recent decades, terrorism was principally used by organized groups to strike against richer Western democracies. But today, 70 percent of all terrorist attacks are of the lone-actor variety, and terrorism is more commonly taking place in zones of conflict and instability. Although these conflicts are rooted in grievances of inequality and exclusion, each event is not linked to the other. Although it’s possible that some groups have been inspired by one another — the Tamil Tigers, for instance, pioneered the use of suicide vests — an act of terrorism in Cairo has nothing to do with the bombings taking place in Somalia.
Whenever terrorist attacks have taken place, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that there is a pattern or connection. There may be an overwhelming feeling that terrorist attacks are taking place everywhere, and that a terrorism epidemic is turning into a pandemic. But although the number of attacks is high, the global death toll tells a different story.
It’s true that the number of deaths attributable to terrorism spiked dramatically in 2014 (particularly in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries), but it declined in 2015 and 2016. At the time of this writing, 15,320 people are known to have been killed in terrorist attacks since the start of 2016 — sharply down from 28,328 deaths in 2015 and 32,763 in 2014. Most of these people were killed in countries that are unstable and troubled by war or insurgency — Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria. These five countries constitute 72 percent of all deaths from terrorism. But these numbers are decreasing, with Nigeria and Iraq having 5,556 fewer deaths, and Pakistan also seeing a decline in its overall death toll.
Many in the West cite terrorism as a top domestic worry, but that’s perhaps because they underestimate just how deadly other forms of violence are. From 2001 to 2013, 406,496 people on American soil were killed by firearms, while during the same period 3,030 died because of a terrorist attack — the bulk of them thanks to the events of 9/11. In 2011, when 12,533 people around the world died because of terrorist attacks, Mexico saw more than 27,000 people die because of gun violence alone. In the United States, about 13,000 people in 2015 were lost to gun violence, or about 2,000 fewer than the global terrorism death toll.
Terrorism’s preeminent effects are psychological rather than physical; it has a way of skewing our perceptions, meaning that we perceive a bigger menace than actually exists. To fight it, we need to fight back against these psychological tricks. So long as we go on assuming that terrorist attacks are connected and trying to link them to a global extremist threat looming on our doorstep, we misunderstand the unique problems facing each country — and what’s needed to defang them.